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Steinberg: What was Stern's legacy?

October 27, 2012|By Leigh Steinberg

David Stern, the NBA commissioner has wielded unquestioned power over his sport in a way rarely seen over the last 30 years.

He will retire in February of 2014, handing power over to his longtime deputy, Adam Silver. It is unlikely that any commissioner will exert the sheer domination that Stern exercised again.

So what is his legacy?

In 1984 the NBA was a very different league. The sport's premiere event, the NBA Finals, was being shown on tape delay on television at 11:30 p.m.. Teams like Chicago were lucky to draw 7,000 fans a night. The average salary in the league was well under $250,000. Franchises could be purchased for as little as $11 million.

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The four-year deal for national television with CBS was worth $91 million for the league. The popular perception was that no game was worth watching until the final two minutes because every game was decided at the last minute. The NBA was not considered a sport at the same level of the NFL, Major League Baseball or college football. Stern dramatically changed that tableau.

Stern understood the concept of branding and marketing. He pushed the players to be as attractive and media friendly in their public appearances as possible. He saw the natural rivalry and star power of the Los Angeles Lakers with Magic Johnson competing against the Boston Celtics with Larry Bird. Their contests seemed to be featured on national television virtually every week.

Stern realized how shoe companies could help build the brand, especially Nike, and how that would lead to endless hours of free exposure for basketball. As technology progressed, he became adept at utilizing every platform of content supply, Twitter to mobile phones to reach fans. He pushed the creation of an NBA network. He had NBA players compete in the Olympics starting with the 1984 Dream Team. That led to outreach world-wide and the internationalization of the NBA as a world sport.

He saw the potential in China and other foreign markets. He understood the concept of star power. He was fortunate to have the Michael Jordan era followed by Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and other recognizable figures that became household names. He also added seven expansion franchises, extending the reach of the league. And he created a luxury tax system to deal with market inequity in which the lowest income teams split up $180 million.

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